The Journal Gazette
Thursday, February 23, 2017 11:44 am

Senator urged to help fight opioid 'epidemic'

Brian Francisco | The Journal Gazette

Allen County health, criminal justice and law enforcement officials told U.S. Sen. Todd Young on Wednesday that they could use federal help in battling opioid abuse.

"This really is an epidemic that has become so big in our county that we don’t know how to deal with it," Superior Court Judge Wendy Davis said during a meeting with Young, R-Ind., at the Allen County Courthouse.

Fort Wayne Police Capt. Kevin Hunter said 804 drug overdoses were reported in Allen County in 2016 and 130 in the first seven weeks of this year.

"I have never seen a problem like what we’ve seen with the opioid and heroin problem here. … There are not enough hours in the day to address this issue," Hunter said.

Dr. Deborah McMahan, the county health commissioner, said drug addiction is associated with other health risks that tax every community’s resources, including HIV, hepatitis C and neonatal abstinence syndrome.

"I think this could really tear our country down if we don’t address this," McMahan said.

Davis described various opioid addicts who have appeared in her court after being charged with nonviolent crimes: two pregnant women, a former sex-trade victim in her late teens "with a heroin needle in her arm every day for the last 10 years" and a 20-year-old man taught to inject heroin by his father, who later died from an overdose.

"It’s every day," Sheriff David Gladieux told Young about the arrests of addicts. "I can’t help those people in jail."

Nine people joined Young for the discussion in Gladieux’s office. The freshman senator from Bloomington praised their interagency efforts as "tearing down the walls and connecting the dots" in trying to reduce heroin use and prescription opioid abuse.

Young said he will support Allen County’s efforts to obtain federal drug prevention and treatment grants, and he instructed local agencies to itemize their resource needs.

"I’m serious about helping," Young said, encouraging "evidence-based interventions" with proven results.

Local officials said they hope to develop a residential addiction rehabilitation program that nonviolent drug offenders would enter upon their release from jail. It would house 16 to 24 patients who would stay as long as 45 days.

Beth Lock, the county’s director of government affairs, said the project would receive a $1.5 million grant from a substance abuse pilot program that would be created by legislation advancing this winter at the Indiana General Assembly. The grant would require matching local funds, which would come from the Lutheran Foundation, Lock said.

Under Senate Bill 510, authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, Allen County could hire an outside entity to administer the pilot program.

The Senate approved the legislation by a 48-0 vote Tuesday and awaits consideration by the House.

Discussion participants seemed to agree that opioid abuse, at least among nonviolent offenders who are not drug dealers, is much more of a health crisis than it is a criminal threat.

Eric Zimmerman, the county’s adult chief probation officer, said addicts "just can’t stay off" opioids. "These people need treatment."

The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, released a report Wednesday in which it said an increasing number of local justice systems are implementing "harm reduction strategies" – including law enforcement-assisted diversion, medication-assisted treatment, the distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and syringe exchange programs – to combat opioid abuse.

"In cities and states across the country, there is a growing appetite for shifting the way we respond to people who use drugs away from strictly punishment and towards more effective, compassionate responses," Leah Pope, co-author of the report, said in a news release.

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